TELEVISION / Absolutely fabulous. Not]: Baikie, Banks, Docherty, Hunter, Kennedy & Sparkes. Who? The comics from Absolutely tell Jim White why they're basking in obscurity

Jim White
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:45

If things went horribly wrong, and the six writers and performers of the television sketch show Absolutely needed to find another job, they should steer clear of sales, marketing or public relations. Talk about self-effacing - this is a typical anecdote they tell about themselves:

Apparently on a business trip, a top executive at Channel 4 happened to catch their programme on a hotel television. When the executive returned to the office, she immediately issued a directive: 'We must sign these people up, they're brilliant.'

A colleague tactfully pointed out that since Absolutely went out on Channel 4, they already had signed these people up. 'Oh yeah,' the executive replied. 'So why didn't anybody tell me about them?'

This, the team insists, is true. Peter Baikie, Morwenna Banks, Jack Docherty, Moray Hunter, Gordon Kennedy and John Sparkes prefer to keep a low profile. Or rather no profile at all.

'If David Baddiel and Rob Newman are known as the Morrissey and Michael Stipe of comedy,' said Morwenna Banks, the only one with an English accent, 'then you could call us the Spinners.'

Absolutely - which should not be confused with Absolutely Fabulous ('No, no, we don't mind if it is,' said Jack Docherty. 'Maybe we'll pick up some of its viewers') - begins its fourth series this week. After three years of drifting around the schedules like Mark Thatcher on a car rally, the programme has been allocated Channel 4's most prestigious comedy slot: 10.30 on Friday night.

It will return with many of the comedy characters developed over the previous shows: the philosophising Little Girl; Calum Gilhooley, the anorak-wearing know-all; Stoneybridge Council, in which every citizen of a remote Scottish town has executive powers; and the Nice Family, a bunch of cardigan-clad greysters whose living room is dominated by a portrait of John Major. Theirs is the best collection of comic characters this side of Harry Enfield's, known and loved in, well, several households up and down the country.

'We can be fairly precise about who watches the show,' said Peter Baikie. 'We have their name and address.'

'I don't think even our parents watch, do they?' said Morwenna Banks.

'We get about 500 in the studio audience,' said John Sparkes. 'So we know they watch. And that's about it, really.'

'Actually, to be sadly serious about it, we are Channel 4's most watched show among 16 to 35 year olds,' concluded Banks. At which John Sparkes rummaged behind the two plaster-cast busts of Jack Docherty which were, for some reason, sitting on the team's office desk, and emerged with a pin board. On it was stapled BARB's official confirmation of Absolutely's ratings success.

'Mind you, don't read too much into figures,' added Peter Baikie. 'The man who pilots the ferry between Kyle of Localsh and Skye told me he was a big fan and he's about 75.'

All this self-effacement was, in the beginning, quite deliberate. The team won their commission about the time that Emma Thompson's show had been extravagantly hyped and then, when it turned out to be about as funny as Fiona Armstrong, even more extravagantly pilloried.

'We wanted people to find us,' said Gordon Kennedy. 'We didn't want to push things too hard. That way Channel 4 could stick with us, we couldn't become the great new thing that failed. And it was a chance to learn.'

'Fortunately, no one watched Series 1,' chipped in John Sparkes. 'Otherwise we wouldn't have got Series 2.'

Several of the six were well-known on the live comedy circuit before they grouped up for the series. Docherty and Hunter's schtick was Don and George, an effete pair of Edinburgh gentlemen. Sparkes had Siadwell, the educationally sub-normal Welsh schoolboy with a talking brick, and Frank Hovis, a hopeless night-club master of ceremonies. Banks, meanwhile, had recently come down from Cambridge where she was in the Footlights. She is one of the few recent Footlights stalwarts to miss the cut for Peter's Friends.

'Well, that crowd were a bit older than me. I didn't really, well, we hardly, you know, overlapped,' she said, by way of explanation.

'She has been guaranteed a role in the sequel, however,' revealed John Sparkes. 'Peter's Nodding Acquaintances.'

They all first got together, Docherty claimed, 'at Reading Borstal. I was Stephen Fry's fag'. Their intention was to secure a commission for a show which was performer-led. Unlike, say, Not the Nine O'Clock News, in which a staff producer recruited likely players and handed them a script, the Absolutelies were determined to do everything themselves from the start. One thing they did not want to do was topical gags.

'I'd written topical stuff endlessly for Spitting Image and I was sick of it,' said Docherty. 'It's difficult doing a topical show. What I find about topical humour is that everyone does the same joke, the gag of the week. That's my theory, anyway. The good thing about Absolutely is, it's pretty likely no one else is doing the same gag.'

From the base of their sketch show, the team hoped to branch out into other things. It has taken them several years to manage it. Their first commission is for a Don and George sitcom which goes into production later this month. To help them develop their production company, they have just recruited a managing director.

'You need some sort of profile to get your programmes on these days,' said Banks. 'And if we're known at all, it's solely for Absolutely. But we've got ideas, plans for all sorts of things, so we're hoping a bit of marketing will help us.'

'Channels have to be perceived as having stars,' added Baikie. 'Ratings are less important than your status. We're being encouraged to do all sorts of things like adverts to put ourselves about a bit.'

They are also, in order to raise their profile, publicising themselves in a systematic way for the first time. Halfway through this interview John Sparkes popped out of their office to make more coffee in reception and returned with the news that the Daily Express were on the phone to interview Morwenna.

'Tell him you've shagged us all, Wen,' he advised. 'We need the headlines. After that I've got to call the Shropshire Star. We're very big in Shropshire. We could do the Ludlow Festival anytime. I mean I'd do it this year. If they wanted me.'

Gordon Kennedy added that they were hoping to crack the telly chat-show circuit. But the only one they had been on so far is Pebble Mill at One.

'Don't knock it though. Loads of people have said to me 'Ooh, I saw you on Pebble Mill at One.' said Morwenna Banks as she stepped out to engage with the Express. 'Nobody I know has ever said to me they saw me on Absolutely.'

'Absolutely' Friday, Channel 4, 10.30

(Photograph omitted)

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